Dry run

Unofficial fall-color prognosticator J. Dan Pittillo has some good news and some bad news.

First, the good news: The Western Carolina University biology professor says the rain we got in the early part of this year’s growing season means that our trees had enough water to put out new growth.

The bad news for fall-color fans is that we’ll probably we see a patchwork effect — pockets of brilliant color with (gasp!) drab spots across Western North Carolina this fall.

“The whole mountain region’s going to be spotty,” predicts Pittillo, a specialist in Appalachian plant ecology.

The professor figures that drought in the early part of the growing season is what leads to spectacular fall color. That’s because a tree with less new growth — and fewer cells to take care of — probably puts its energy into adding more pigment since it doesn’t have to fill out new twigs and leaves.

And even though WNC had a run of dry weather in late summer, Pittillo thinks the rainfall we got in the early part of the season will make the difference for fall color. That means the central part of North Carolina (which was afflicted by drought during the growing season) should have more-brilliant fall foliage than the mountains, he says.

The scientist, however, is careful to note that his early-drought-leads-to-flashy-leaves idea is but an untested hypothesis that he’s not completely sure is accurate.

“But it seems to work, and it makes a logical sequence,” Pittillo observes.

In fact, WNC’s fall-color guru has been tracking the phenomenon ever since he was a little boy growing up in Henderson County’s Fruitland community. He can still recall the brilliant burst of golden color his family’s hickory tree wore during the mid-’50s, which he now says probably related to a drought going on at the time.

But drought is only one of a number of factors that can affect leaf color. If there’s an early freeze (with temperatures below 28 degrees), tree foliage may turn dull green or brown, he says.

Of course, the only reason we see splashy fall colors at all is that the season’s cooler nighttime temperatures and a change in the intensity of sunlight cause chlorophyll (the chemical that makes leaves green) to break down. Once that pesky green stuff is out of the way, the colors it’s been masking all along can finally put in an appearance.

The natural color progression typically begins in the upper elevations of northwestern North Carolina in early October, spreading southward and down the slopes through mid-October and early November.

The peak for Asheville? Set your watch for 2 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12, jokes Pittillo. (The professor may be good, but even he can’t nail things down to that extent.)

Pittillo will say, however, that the first trees to show off their fall clothes will be yellow birches, pin cherries and poplars, along with red sourwoods and red and yellow maples. They’ll be followed by the yellow and red of oaks and sweet gums, yellow-leafed hickories and the yellow and brown of beeches. And even if the trees aren’t consistently up to snuff in the color department, wildflowers should augment the palette by adding infusions of yellow (goldenrod), blue and white (asters) and purple (ironweed).

Pittillo isn’t sure what his color-forecasting success rate is, but his media cachet seems to be steadily on the rise since he began offering predictions back around 1990. This year, he’s gotten calls from National Public Radio and The Washington Post as well as from media outlets closer to home.

And Pittillo insists that his less-than-colorful prediction doesn’t necessarily mean a uniformly dull autumn lies ahead.

“There’s always someplace that seems to be colorful, anyway,” he says reassuringly.

I’m dreaming of a profitable autumn

The folks at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce must be doing some wishful thinking about the chances for a flashy fall-color season.

“Stressed plants and trees caused by drought in the Southeast may be exactly what leads to an incredible fall color season this year, say the experts,” declares a Sept. 6 Chamber press release.

But though the Chamber quotes perennial fall-foliage forecaster J. Dan Pittillo (a WCU biology professor), the news release leaves out his main prediction — that the drought’s timing will probably cause bright fall colors in the central part of North Carolina but only spotty color here in the mountains. Nice try, though.

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